Cell Phones, YouTube, and the Constitutional Convention of 1787

What if one of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had used their cell phone to record debate and then posted it on YouTube?

Wow, that takes a minute to grasp. In case you aren’t aware, you can buy a cell phone that has the capability to record “moving pictures”, like a camcorder. You can then post the film on the internet. For many people, especially those under thirty years of age, the preferred place to post such recordings is on YouTube’s website. Once there, anyone with access to the internet can go and watch it. This is growing way to see events which in years past we would only have viewed if network television chose to broadcast it to us. As of today, YouTube has thousands of postings, a few memorable, some offensive, and the vast majority harmless.

Some of you might be tempted to dismiss this what-if as simply too ludicrous. Wait a minute, though-it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. The question can be recast as this: what if one of the delegates chose to publicize any of the crucial moments of debate that everyone in the Convention had agreed would be held in secret? And what if that publicity had been readily accessible to people, or at least in communities outside Philadelphia, say in New York City?

So, the violation of the pledge occurs sometime during the summer by one of the fifty-five delegates. Now what happens?

First, the release of inside information would have bumped into a powerful value shared by many formal and informal leaders in the 1780s. That value was “virtue.” Virtue was a concept to which George Washington and hundreds of his peers held. A person in a capacity of either power or influence had a duty to behave honorably, or at least try to do so. Virtue meant self-denial, self-control, self-restraint. In our day we are more inclined to talk about ethics than honor or virtue. We can count on one hand the number of references to virtue in the reaction to the Enron scandal. Of ethics and ethical lapses, we heard much. Of honor and its absence, we heard nothing.

Leaders in the 1780s would have recognized that violation of the secrecy pledge at the Convention was an affront to honor and a display of the lack of virtue. As such, they would likely have united to denounce publicly or privately the delegate who had publicized the information. The offending delegate would have riled the disapproval of opponents in his home state and city. He would also have offended the sensibilities of his allies and followers. They might not have criticized him as fiercely as opponents would have done, but they would have probably been noticeable in the silence of their defenses of him. In this way, we can predict that much as the white blood cells in your body work together to fight injury or illness, leaders in the culture of virtue would have acted to limit the damage of the publicized report.

We know that white blood cells aren’t invincible. They don’t stop every disease or bind every wound. So it was with the culture of virtue in 1780s America; so, too, with effects of the report that seeped out of the Convention in mid-1787.

It’s almost certain that a leaked report would have been about something big. One can imagine such a report pertaining to small state/large state debates, or perhaps the disagreements associated with regional differences. It’s doubtful that trivial or minor topics would have caused a delegate to disregard the secrecy order-possible but doubtful. Which means that circulation of more significant information would have been slowed down but not stopped by the culture of virtue. One or more people linked to the offending delegate would have thought the thing so important that violation of secrecy was worthwhile. So, they would have picked up the report and analyzed it in the newspapers or in stand-alone pamphlets. At this point, the stage would have been set for their opponents in the state or locality to respond in kind. This type of back-and-forth newspaper fight was actually seen during ratification of the Constitution in 1787 and 1788.

Our “what-if” now unfolds as a public struggle in at least one state over a major issue leaked from the Philadelphia Convention in mid-1787. The key point would be if the public dispute reappeared in more than one state, if the outraged supporters of the offending delegate would have garnered allies outside their state. This truly is the key. If they could have, the Convention would likely have collapsed. If they failed to draw out-of-state support, the Convention could have continued, perhaps with Washington as presiding officer dismissing the delegate who had leaked the report in the first place. Again, we would have the same support-or-die dynamic here-the dismissed person’s fellow delegates would had to have decided whether to resign in solidarity or remain in Philadelphia at the Convention.

I believe that the probability of the Convention’s continuance or collapse would have been directly proportional to the significance of the leaked issue. As I mentioned before, leaking more often than not implies an issue of weight, real or perceived. If this is true, then the Convention would have tended toward collapse if the issue had rallied supporters in more than one state.

A substantial effect on leakage as we’ve sketched it here would have been on George Washington. His actions as presiding officer were largely concealed in the real history. A break in the public behavior of the Convention’s unity would have compelled him to re-examine this approach. Washington would almost certainly have acted boldly if conditions had called for it. His imprint on the national government after 1787 would have been substantially stronger sooner than actually occurred. And we might speculate that a backlash against his activism would also have appeared sooner than happened with the record (in the mid-1790s).

We know that the Convention was brittle in its consensus. We also know that in many state ratification conventions, the margin of victory was thin and with a particular shift in the final Constitution draft, would have disappeared entirely. For these reasons, I base my opinion above that the Convention would have fallen apart if a serious issue had been leaked and publicly debated at a crucial time.

Let’s recall something else here. Remember that the pivotal factor would have been the leakage in real-time. We know that a form of leakage occurred in debates during various ratification debates. After-the-fact leakage, if you will, produced effects, but not of the kind that would have been true in the moment of mid-1787. Leaks combined with an unknown outcome would have been monumental in their effect on events.

Thus, in our understanding of the Convention of 1787, we should recognize that maintaining the pledge of secrecy was equally important to any other factor in explaining the event’s outcome. Abiding by the pledge ranks with other chapters of the Constitution’s story in 1787, including the nature of the delegates themselves, the numerous compromises, and the lack of a persuasive alternative in ratification.

Allow me one last point in this intriguing “what-if” scenario. Notice that I’ve kept the scenario in the tempo of eighteenth-century communication. That’s why I used newspaper essays and pamphlets as the paths for our speculative debates of the leak. But what if you think about a different tempo, the tempo of instant communication that we know in the early twenty-first century? Does it fundamentally change the dynamics if the leak is potentially available to everyone instantly? Put another way, can we in our era even have secrecy on such a vital issue?

I’m often told by my participants and alumni that the secrecy of 1787 is impossible today. We could never accomplish the Convention, they say, because no one would be able to debate in secret. By extension, they imply that the quality of the final draft would also be impossible to replicate. I suppose they’re right.

I’ve noticed that we operate on two different levels today. In our lives as voters, citizens, and consumers of news and entertainment and nearly everything else, we expect to know things now. We also expect to have things made known to us now. And yet, in many of our work lives, we deal with something different. At work, there is still a considerable degree of information and knowledge withheld, often for logical reasons. To me, that suggests that we will naturally struggle and grapple with the issue of the speed of communication until these two aspects of our lives come closer to matching or harmonizing with each other. If you think about it, the men and women of 1787 had less of a gap or tension between the movement of knowledge and information within the two spheres of their existence. And any large gaps that appeared were often linked to laws and customs (e.g. slaves). Thus, there was less confusion and change in going from one part of your life (work) to another (home or personal).